Now Hiring: The Feminization of Work in the United States, 1900-1995

By Julia Kirk Blackwelder | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Working "Girls"
at the Turn of the Century

By 1900 the triumphant industrial economy of the United States had reconfigured the U.S. labor force and the institutions associated with it. Almost as if the pulsing currents of industrialization had turned their very skeletons of iron and steel into magnets, the cities, mills, and factories of America drew workers from near and far, from home and abroad. Women's employment levels rose as their own cash requirements mounted and as expanding consumer markets produced new jobs for women in manufacturing and commerce. As industrialization proceeded, individuals and families depended increasingly on factory-produced commodities that further inflated the need for cash income. These structural changes enticed growing numbers of women, not all of whom came from poverty, into the labor market with such effect that in 1900 five million women in the United States worked for wages and one in five U.S. workers was female.

Women seeking jobs in 1900 followed the paths of forebears who had accepted employment in a society marked by elaborate and long-standing hiring preferences based on gender, on marital status, and on ethnicity or race. This employer discrimination, generally predicated on widely shared community prejudices, protected some jobs for women but kept women out of others. Within female labor markets, class, race, and ethnicity intertwined with the strand of gender to define women's job options. These factors, as much as economic considerations, determined which jobs women could have and thus influenced their decisions about whether, when, and where to seek work.

In terms of status and job desirability, the occupational structure of the female labor force resembled a stratified pyramid, with professionals (who made up approximately 12 percent of the nonfarm female work force) at the apex, followed by clericals (5 percent), salesworkers (5 percent), and factory operatives or manual

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